For many consumers, when it comes to thinking about how food reaches their plates, their thought process leads to "I just don't want to know." Staying in the dark allows them to eat cheap, processed food from large grocery or restaurant chains without feeling any guilt over the questionable practices that lead to such affordable prices. In today's economy, who can blame them? But it's getting to the point where this ignorance about the food industry affects a lot more than your dollars.
This past Tuesday, the FDA announced that the Iowa egg farm responsible for the summer's widespread Salmonella outbreak has cleaned up two of its barns and that these facilities may resume sending out shipments of shell eggs. However, "a company spokeswoman declined to say where the eggs would be sold." Even though these two barns can produce more than 800,000 eggs a week that will reach stores all over the country, shoppers who purchase them will be clueless that their eggs come from Iowa, let alone the same facility that caused them to reconsider which products they bought (if any) while outbreak headlines were dominating the news.
Whether or not the company has truly cleaned up its act, it's clear that those who dominate sectors of the industry - where thousands of livestock raised in a single facility are the norm - have a national impact on our food supply and public health. Consumers, therefore, have a right to know what they are eating and where it comes from.
A growing demographic of people who want to know more details on the source of their food is influencing corporate decisions. Particularly in the realm of animal welfare, many brands are phasing out practices their customers recognize as inhumane. Following a national movement to stop the use of cages to confine laying hens, Kraft Foods recently announced it would source one million eggs from cage-free hens in 2011. Food Manufacturing summarizes points from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to explain what the change would imply:
- U.S. factory farms confine about 280 million hens in cages so small, they can't even spread their wings. Extensive scientific research confirms this causes suffering.
- Cage-free hens generally have two to three times more space per bird than caged hens. Cage-free hens may not be able to go outside and, like caged hens, may have parts of their beaks cut off, but they can walk, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests—all behaviors permanently denied to hens crammed into cages.
Moving towards cage-free eggs looks to be a step up for factory farms, but it's hard to tell how much effort is being made or if it's just for show. Unless you're buying directly from a local farmer, consumers must rely on labels to know the history of their food, including how the animals were handled. But terms like "cage-free" are not strictly regulated, and it's easy for companies to market a practice they know consumers want without actually making substantial changes.
A lawsuit was filed this week that accuses Perdue Farms - the nation's third largest poultry producer - with falsely advertising its chicken as "humanely raised." A member of HSUS filed the suit "on behalf of consumers duped by Perdue Farms." The advocacy group details the trauma that chickens undergo at typical poultry slaughter operations, where they frequently experience stress and pain before they are killed. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, that requires rendering animals insensible to pain before slaughter, does not apply to poultry.
The Perdue lawsuit highlights the issue of large-scale producers' ability to exploit consumer demand for their profit. HSUS chief counsel Jonathan Lovvorn argues that "Perdue has simply slapped 'humanely raised' stickers on its factory farm products, hoping consumers won't know the difference."
It's evident that shoppers' preferences are facilitating change, but we must keep companies accountable for their claims and continue to promote transparency throughout our food system. Especially when factory farms have grown significantly bigger in the last decade (according to a new Food & Water Watch report), which squeezes more animals into small spaces, the push for truth and openness in food production is increasingly essential.
Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.